Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Clave, an irregular rhythmic pattern key to Cuban music, is considered a key part of Cuban identity by the characters in the book. Gratz compares the clave to a heartbeat, implying that its existence is as essential to the music as a heart is to life. Lito defines the clave as the element of Cuban identity that persists no matter who is in political power and how laws change. Isabel, otherwise a gifted musician, struggles in the beginning of the book with her inability to count the beat of the clave and clap along with the other members of her family. Although Lito assures her that the rhythm will come to her, she fears that not being able to feel the clave makes her less than fully Cuban, a fear that intensifies when she flees her home country. However, when Isabel plays the “Star-Spangled Banner” for her audition in Miami, infusing the American anthem with Cuban musical style, she finally feels the clave for herself, showing that in escaping Cuba, she nevertheless remains Cuban, her native national identity as indelibly a part of her as her heartbeat.
In all the storylines, the main characters are told that they will reach safety “tomorrow” or “mañana.” This motif illustrates the helpless waiting that characterizes refugee life. After the St. Louis arrives in Havana, the passengers believe they have escaped Nazi Germany. However, day after day, the port authorities refuse to let them off the ship, each time telling them they can leave “mañana.” This “mañana” echoes in Lito’s memory as he bails water out of the boat Isabel’s family has used to flee Cuba. As he hears himself tell Iván that they will reach Florida “mañana” he remembers telling the passengers of the St. Louis the same and is struck by the dispiriting realization that for them, that tomorrow never arrived. Mahmoud and his family, stranded in Turkey, are told every day by the smuggler they have paid for passage to Greece that their boat will leave “tomorrow.” Gradually the family loses hope that tomorrow will come, as they struggle to find safe places to wait. Throughout the book, the words tomorrow and mañana become a repeated motif emphasizing the sense of powerlessness the families experience while forced to wait.
Throughout the book, Gratz invokes the ancient motif of characters tearing their clothing to indicate grief and desperation. When Professor Weiler dies on board the St. Louis and the passengers assemble for a funeral, Josef and his father tear their shirts, joining others who have torn their own clothes to show shared sympathy with his widow. Later, as the ship departs Cuba, Josef tears his collar again, grieving both for the lost chance at safety on the island and for his father, left behind there at the hospital, alive in body but dead to the family. As the dinghy carrying Hana away leaves Mahmoud and his mother in the water without her, Fatima tears at her clothes, showing the extremity of her suffering at having lost her daughter. In 1940, as Josef, Ruthie, and Rachel climb out of the schoolhouse, Josef’s coat sleeve catches on the broken glass of the window and rips. Although this tear is unintentional, it foreshadows coming loss, as he and Rachel will soon be captured and sent to their deaths. Rachel saves Ruthie by tearing open the lining of her coat, revealing the hidden diamond earrings she uses to bribe the soldier and metaphorically signaling the coming separation and grief.